Who was Thomas Paine? Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was born in England, the son of a Quaker stay-maker. He came to America in 1774 after a mediocre early career. He was just in time to participate in the American Revolution. His Common Sense served to galvanize American resistance to British tyranny. But his later works (The Age of Reason and The Rights of Man) revealed his radical skepticism. Paine remained utterly closed to all calls to repentance. One day an elderly lady broke into his quarters, declaring that “I came from Almighty God to tell you that if you do not repent of your sins and believe in the blessed Saviour, you will be damned.” “Poh! Poh! It is not true,” Paine retorted, “You were not sent on any such impertinent mission. God would not send such a foolish ugly old woman as you about with his messages!” Ironically, while rejecting the source of liberty Paine proclaimed liberty for all, From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms! / Through the land let the sound of it flee; / Let the far and the near all unite, with a cheer, / In defense of our Liberty Tree.
Historical context. Thomas Paine played an active role in both the American and the French Revolutions near the end of the 18th century. These were the two big national convulsions that shook the world at almost the same time. In 1776, the patriot cause in America seemed to be doomed. But, Paine’s call to action in Common Sense (1776) helped rouse the colonists to a spirited comeback. “These are the times that try men’s souls” was his famous rallying cry. He wanted a utilitarian government resting on popular appeal instead of a monarchy based on hereditary right.
With the American Constitution secured in 1788, Paine moved to England where he published The Rights of Man (1791, 1792). Then he went to France at the invitation of the revolutionary government. Driven out of England, he became a citizen of France and was elected to the French revolutionary convention. There he sided with the minority against the radical Jacobins, voting for example, to exile Louis XVI rather than execute him. As the revolution progressed, he was sent to prison, where he penned Age of Reason (1795, 1807). This was his third and final volume. Outlasting the guillotine, he was released after the fall of Robespierre and the rise of the Empire of Napoleon. He returned to the United States in 1802 where he lived until his death. He was buried in a New York farm field because no American cemetery would accept his remains.
Summary of Paine’s teaching. Paine was more compatible with the French Revolutionists, but he contributed to the Patriot cause in America as well.
In rousing style, Common Sense urged instant separation from Great Britain and the setting up of a secular republic. This was a theme he expanded in Rights of Man. Rights of Man was the most widely read response to Edmund Burke’s negative critique of the French Revolution.
Implications for subsequent history. Paine’s contribution to the cause of liberty was mixed. Both of the revolutions he championed were in the final analysis revolts against God. Both shifted authority for government to a democratic majority. “His Age of Reason broke ground for the serious biblical criticism that was to come. It was allegedly written not to attack religion, but in his own words, ‘to show a higher form of religion.'” (39).
Biblical analysis. The liberty Paine endorsed was not a liberty under God. As such it was transitory. True liberty is found only in Christ and in obeying His law. The Psalmist declared, “And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts” (Ps. 119:45). Elsewhere, Jesus said, “Ye shall know the truth & the truth shall make you free….” James declared that the law of Christ is the “perfect law of liberty.” Paine was, in fact, part of the Enlightenment movement that displaced the glory and sovereignty of God with the rights and liberty of man as the highest goal of political action. This was the liberty sought by the children of Israel in I Samuel 8. There they rejected the
rule of God (Theocracy) for the rule of men (democracy). The prophet Samuel foretold that their freedom would evaporate in the rule of a tyrant. By definition a tyrant is one who rules without the law of God. This tyrant would exact a tenth. This, of course, is a fraction of the tribute required by our modern tyrannies.
Paine’s real attitude toward the source of liberty was captured in his famous quote. Because of the “obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God.” (From The Age of Reason).
Corrective or Prescriptive Actions: We must guard the glory of God, if we wish to secure the liberty of men. Liberty divorced from the law of God degenerates quickly into license. The liberty of the Bible is liberty under law, not liberty from law.